…about work? What is and isn’t your job? When is your job “done” for the day? How do colleagues work together?
…about relationships? How do you communicate? How do you argue? Where do you compromise?
…about finances? What’s your budget? How do you mesh your spending/tracking style with a significant other, aging parent, or child?
…about ways you spend your time? What time is yours? What blocks of your schedule belong to someone else?
…about the direction of communities you’re part of? What’s the vision? How do you participate in shaping and carrying it out?
We all carry around expectations, whether we put words to them or not. And as Brené Brown points out, there’s a strong correlation between expectations and disappointment: “Disappointment is unmet expectations, and the more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment.” (Rising Strong, p. 139).
We’ve all been steamrolled by disappointment. The afternoon we set aside to binge-watch Netflix gets taken over by a lengthy honey-do list. The job we thought we wanted turns out to be a terrible fit. The Normal Rockwellian Thanksgiving dinner we imagined becomes a hot mess of overcooked turkey and battles between relatives with different political ideologies. The church we love loses steam, and the church friends we love slowly drift away to other congregations or to no congregation at all.
There’s no way to avoid all disappointment, but Brown prescribes a couple of steps to take away its power:
Put all your expectations on the table. Don’t expect your husband, your kid, or your supervisee to read your mind. That’s a recipe for sunken-heart syndrome and broken relationships. It’s also helpful to raise our expectations to consciousness so we’re not caught off guard by our own strong reactions to tough situations.
Acknowledge which expectations are based on factors beyond your control. You might still have the expectation, but it might be easier to deal with the frustration if you realize you couldn’t have changed the outcome.
These are good exercises for congregations because we carry so many expectations about our community of faith. How do my expectations line up with my fellow church members’? And, more importantly, how do our human hopes fit in with God’s hopes for us?
Everyone deals with anxiety, some of us more than others. Two typical responses are:
Overfunctioning – Keeping busy doing something – anything! – to keep our feelings from catching up with us. Not only will we refuse to delegate, we will rip to-dos from the hands of others. (This is my default.)
Underfunctioning – Allowing emotion to immobilize us. It embodies the attitude, “I can’t fix things, so why try?”
A bit of one or the other might serve us well in the short term. In times of crisis, there’s often a need to TCB (take care of business). Or we may need to stop in our tracks before we do or say something irreversible out of anxiety. But in the long run, neither over- nor underfunctioning serves us well. It’s basic physics – an object in motion will stay in motion, and an object at rest will stay at rest.
It’s not just individuals that are prone to inertia. Communities can over- and underfunction as a collective. A congregation that is so afraid of shrinking numbers that it never takes time to evaluate its many ministries will press on until it has run off anyone interested in innovation. A church that is so depressed that it can’t dream or discern or do will slowly die off (spiritually and numerically).
There is no way to avoid the hard work of connecting the dots:
What am I (are we) feeling? What won’t I let myself (we let ourselves) feel, and why?
How did I (we) get here?
What can I (we) control?
Given what I (we) can control, what is the first step in moving forward?
Rising strong from tough situations requires us to combine the best aspects of under- and overfunctioning. We must feel, and we must do.
[Disclaimer: this is not really a Rising Strong post, but it goes along with the idea of helping each other live wholeheartedly.]
There is a very important skill that most of us could stand to fine-tune. Anyone can offer criticism, but constructive criticism is a wholly different animal. And we all need to hear this kind of helpful feedback since it’s tough to step outside ourselves and understand how our words and actions affect others.
Whether you want to share your thoughts on the preacher’s sermon, your teenage daughter’s outfit, or the school board’s re-zoning plan, here are some questions to ask yourself before giving voice to your perspective:
Is this a real issue or a personal preference? Real issues need airtime. Personal preferences usually don’t.
Is the issue really the issue? Am I really upset about something else? If so, what?
What is my intent/goal? What do I – honestly – hope to accomplish by speaking up?
What is my relationship with the criticism recipient? Am I the right person to bring this matter up, or would it be more effective coming from someone else who feels the same way?
How best can the recipient hear my message? How can I keep the conversation going instead of putting the hearer on defense?
What am I willing to do to help the recipient make change or to support the recipient in change? If the issue is important enough to raise, it is important enough to invest in the follow through.
May we all be willing to refine our criticism-offering abilities, and may we have the courage to use them. Compassionate honesty breeds connection.
Compassion is the heart of the gospel. When Jesus gives us our charging orders to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner, he is explicitly telling us to note the suffering of others and – rather than turning away from or pitying them – to be as kind to them as if they were Jesus himself. He is implicitly reminding us that we have all known suffering of some sort, that we have all longed to be connected and to be understood.
It’s not easy to see pain in others’ faces, though. Not only do we have to do something once we note the pain, we have to admit that those who suffer are just as deserving (as much as any of us “deserve” grace) of connection and understanding and help as we are. It’s more comfortable to tell ourselves the story that the sufferer made poor choices to get to where he/she is. That obviously we made much more responsible decisions to be in the position to choose our targets of compassion.
BUT. What if instead we went about our lives believing that people are doing the best they can, that some folks are trapped in systems not of their making? What if we loved these folks as they are? What if we remembered our low points and connected with those in need out of our shared humanity?
This is the framework that Brené Brown suggests we operate out of. It is not a call to doormat-dom, however. It is not wearing ourselves down to the nub. It is a balancing act. It is knowing and honoring our limits so that we can do the hard work of looking pain in the eye and extending compassion.
What would it look like if we believed the people who exasperate or frighten us are doing the best they can? The person who calls the church every month for help with the utility bill. The congregational antagonist. The ministry leader whose life is spiraling out of control. What inner work would we need to do first to be able to extend this generous interpretation? And what difference would it make in our individual and collective lives if we could look at others – all others – through these Christ-colored glasses?
When I am feeling overwhelmed, I need to ask, “What is the story I’m telling myself?”
I am too quick to assume – that the person who just tore into me is irredeemably ornery, that I’m not good enough, or that I am too good to be the one creating the problem. None of these default narratives points me toward reflecting more deeply on the situation, reaching out for help, or looking for a solution. They are interpretations, and narrow, blame-inducing ones at that.
As an extreme introvert, I am especially prone to spinning a whole story in my head without fact-checking it, then acting on it like it is true. “What is the story I’m telling myself?” is a way of getting out of my head and sharing my perspective without making hearers defensive, since I’m not claiming that my outlook is gospel.
Instead, Brené Brown suggests I get at the whole story by asking myself:
What am I leaving out in my default narratives?
What am I feeling? Why?
What am I thinking?
What am I believing?
What am I doing?
What information do I need to flesh out and own this story?
Not only are these the questions that I often neglect to ask, they are the ones that congregations need help raising to address subversive narratives of shame and blame. Churches – especially well-established ones – will have trouble moving forward until they are able to unearth and discuss sources of resistance. Only when they are well-aware of feelings and dynamics will they be able to love and trust enough to risk doing new things.
In last week’s episode of The Big Bang Theory, the very logic-focused Sheldon was jarred into the realization that he does not have the ability to suppress all emotion. Unlike his hero, Mr. Spock, he has the capacity to hurt. So do we all.
Not all of us are as uncomfortable with emotion as Sheldon is. (Although I find Sheldon to be very relatable, truth be told!) But most of us do attempt to “offload” our hurt in a number of ways. If you’re interested in what those tricks look like, Brené Brown does a great job of identifying and describing them in Rising Strong (pp. 59-66). This unwillingness to feel the feels, though, only kicks the hurt down the road. It will have to be dealt with again later, often in messier form.
So it’s healthier – and easier, in the long view – to look hurt in the eye. But there are big differences between:
feeling hurt and acting out hurt
feeling disappointed and living disappointed
acknowledging pain and inflicting pain
caring about what others think and being defined by what others think
(Brown names these dichotomies in her introduction and first chapter.)
In the first half of each pair, we acknowledge our humanity and seek to understand what we’re feeling and why. When we can see the issue more clearly, we can deal with it better. If we lean toward the second half of these pairs, though, we’re really looking to avoid pain by passing it on to someone else. We disconnect from our inner life and from other people, making up stories instead about someone else and his/her intentions.
I believe much of the conflict in congregations comes from the desire to pass on pain rather than feeling and owning our discomfort. Church involvement is very personal. We encounter God and mature in our faith at church. We talk about close-to-home and sometimes controversial topics at church. We make some of our best friends at church. We invest much of ourselves and our resources at church. All of this growth-inducing vulnerability leaves us exposed to hurt, and we often don’t have the skills as individuals or communities to handle our disappointments in a healthy way.
In my next post I will outline what I believe to be the most helpful tool Brown offers us for reflection. This examination is the first step toward communicating, understanding, and connecting.
It’s hard to muster up the will to be vulnerable when we absorb criticisms and failures into our identity: “I’m not good enough.” “I’m a screw-up.” That’s why Brené Brown’s distinction between shame and guilt is so helpful.
Shame focuses on our own or someone else’s (lack of) worth. It is rooted in the need to assign blame and in the reluctance to change, and it can quickly lead to a sense of powerlessness and even desperation in the shamee.
Guilt, on the other hand, focuses on behavior – not so much who was wrong but what went wrong: “I messed up” rather than “I’m messed up.” It fosters reflection about how to do differently and a sense of agency for making changes, resulting in hope for future successes.
In many churches those self-reflective muscles have atrophied, leading either to shaming (“Pastor So-and-So killed our congregation with X initiative”) or to feeling ashamed: “Pastor So-and-So left us to go somewhere else. What’s wrong with us?” “Our church is so much smaller than First Church. Why would people choose to come here when they could join a congregation with so much more to offer?” These kinds of mindsets, whether they are expressed aloud or not, can kill a church’s energy and become self-fulfilling prophecies.
How, then, can we help our congregations lay claim to hope? Questions can help flip the narrative from one of shame to one of guilt. For example:
What do we do well? What are some things we’re able to do that bigger/better resourced/more established/etc. churches can’t?
With regard to particular situations, what do we need to do differently the next time?
Notice that these questions focus on actions rather than personalities.
What narratives in your church – or in yourself – need to be flipped, and what questions will help you get there?